Supervisors vote to defend ranches in seashore suit

04/07/2016

County supervisors will ask to join the National Park Service to fight a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups last month, which many see as an assault on historic ranching on Point Reyes. After an impassioned public discussion that included comments from Rep. Jared Huffman and a closed session pow-wow at the Civic Center on Tuesday, supervisors decided to intervene in the suit. 

In doing so, the county would become a defendant alongside the park service and Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, and would participate in all meetings regarding the suit. The judge in the case, Sandra Brown Armstrong, must approve the request, which must prove a strong but independent interest that is not represented by current defendants, said David Zaltsman, the deputy county counsel. 

“We believe that the park intends to vigorously fight the lawsuit,” he told the Light. “But the way settlements go, one party may be more likely to settle on a particular issue than another. Our interests might diverge." 

Supervisor Steve Kinsey told the Light that there is "broad, diverse interest in our county to see that ranching in the park can continue for generations to come, and that the requirements to be able to do so are fair and economically viable for the ranching families whose livelihood depends upon that."

The decision is the biggest news about the lawsuit since it was filed in federal district court on Feb. 10. Brought by the Resource Renewal Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watersheds Project, the suit alleges that the park service violated multiple federal laws by undertaking its Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan before updating its General Management Plan, which is 36 years old. (Ms. Muldoon told the Light that her staff is continuing to work on the ranch plan, which they hope to have ready for public comment by the end of the year.)

The suit also alleges that the seashore has illegally renewed ranching leases without proper environmental review. It does not call for the elimination of ranching, but lists numerous park service policies that generally prohibit it and is widely perceived as a first step in an attempt to eliminate grazing in the seashore’s pastoral zone.

Arguments for intervening—or filing an amicus brief in support of the park service, a less involved action—came from ranchers, agricultural supporters, the county counsel and Rep. Huffman, whose support for county action likely made the decision to intervene easier. 

“Whatever way you choose to engage," he said, "you have my full-throated support in keeping faith in Secretary Salazar’s promise [to issue 20-year leases]. Keeping faith with the deal that historic ranching and dairying families signed up for, that this community signed up for long ago. And certainly keeping faith with what Congress has always intended to happen in the Point Reyes National Seashore…I think supporting them in this litigation is
 critical.”

Jamison Watts, executive director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, stressed that the county’s own policies encourage the continuation of agricultural operations and uses in the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 

Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen said the ranches contribute significantly to the economy, representing $20 million to $22 million of the total $100 million in gross agricultural production in the county. Considering the supportive services, “you can multiply that by three or four times,” he said. (Mr. Carlsen also took a dig at one of the environmental groups suing the park. “It’s probably the center of biological diversity, in reality,” he said of the ranchlands.)

One of the four ranchers who spoke—Albert Straus, who said his family’s creamery sources milk from a seashore dairy—said the ranches desperately need leases to make improvements. He encouraged supervisors to come up with both “interim and long-term solutions.”

Dave Evans, a fourth-generation rancher in the seashore (with a fifth generation “coming up,” he said), gave the most impassioned plea, his voice cracking at one point. “I decided that I would make my life here as others in my family had done. A decision rooted in faith: faith in the agreement my grandfather had made with the federal government and the people of this great nation. Faith that family leases would be respected and renewed. And that we would continue our way of life: ranching on Point Reyes—a land we once owned that is now land that owns us, as part of its identity,” he said.

Mr. Zaltsman said that federal regulations require federal actions to be consistent with how states regulate their coastal areas—in this case, with the county’s Local Coastal Program. “We believe that changes would need to be consistent with the L.C.P.,” he said. The lawsuit “pretty much did not even mention it.”

Though no one spoke in support of the lawsuit, one person—Gordon Bennett—cautioned against intervention. He said he agreed with “almost everything” that had been said, but that there were less “aggressive” ways to be helpful. 

“I know the environmental community and the ranching community are going to have differences,” Mr. Bennett said. “That’s not unexpected. But at this stage we have an agreement in principle that’s really important to keep. To the extent you can help the park service without disturbing the agreement and principle, and letting us continue to work together and build trust, that would be much appreciated."

After public comments, every supervisor voiced support for the seashore ranches. “I think this is a no-brainer that we would be involved,” said Supervisor Katie Rice. “Through county policy and programs and land-use plans, overtly and with strong intention, we have sent signals and taken action…that supports our commitment to the agricultural community and our commitment to continuing the viability of the ag industry. You need a critical mass of ranchers in Marin [in order to] have a viable industry. When we start to erode that critical mass, it will spell the end, I suspect, for the broader ag industry in Marin.”